Kenyan children and youth are walking less and eating more junk food. As a result they are growing fatter, lazier and more sickly than their peers a few generations back.
This is the worrying message from a new study highlighting what students do between the end of the school day and before dinner.
It warns that Kenyan children are at a higher risk of developing chronic lifestyle diseases such diabetes because they are barely engaged in physical activity.
The study by Kenyatta University researchers blames this on parents’ predilection for technological gadgets that ensure their children spend very little energy on domestic chores and entertainment.
The lead researcher, Dr Vincent Onywera of Kenyatta University, says there are many energy-saving devices around children; who are also eating more unhealthy foods. This is turning them into junkies and dummies before puberty.
The study shows that children from rural areas are more physically active than their urban counterparts, with a mean average of 14,700 steps compared to their urban peers’ 11,717.
Top on the list of after school activity was watching television at grade A, followed by physical activity at grade B. The latter implies children have taken to sedentary lifestyles, which predispose them to preventable diseases associated with being obese, overweight and stunted growth.
“The urban children are more sedentary, rely less on active transportation and accrue daily step counts than their rural counterparts. Overall, studies suggest that Kenyan children in urban areas are being exposed to more ‘obesogenic’ lifestyles,” Dr Onywera said.
The report petitions parents and the government to monitor what children eat and do after school, with a bias for more exercise and less fatty foods.
It’s not only parents who are failing the youth, or so warns the report. The government scores a poor C on implementing policies on physical education (PE). The course is compulsory in teacher training colleges, but it is not taken seriously in school largely due to laxity by Ministry of Education inspectors who are supposed to enforce the curriculum.
Dr Onywera, a senior lecturer in Department of Recreation Management and Exercise Science, said though physical education is slotted in the school timetable as required by government policy, most schools use the time to teach other examinable subject.
This, he warns, inhibits development of both healthy minds and bodies.
Seventy per cent of urban and 34 per cent of rural parents reported being more active during childhood than their children.
The study also showed that urban children and youth spend 11 hours per week watching television or playing video games, while those in the rural areas spend three hours.
The disparity could be due to the fact that 65 per cent of children from rural areas interviewed did not have access to a TV set.
Biggest threats to the youth
The study picks out poor diet, smoking, alcohol and unsafe sex as the biggest threats to the youth unless corrective measures are taken urgently.
This corroborates a 2010 World Health Organisation report warning that nearly 43 million children under the age of five were overweight.
“The onset of lifestyle diseases in towns is worrying as people have ignored a campaign to take part in physical activities and eat healthy foods,” warned Prof Elijah Ogola, a cardiologist in an earlier interview.
An increased intake of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other micro nutrients are some of the contributing factors to obesity.
The report warns that seven per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls in urban areas are overweight or obese.
“A pattern of inactivity and sedentary behaviour often begins early in life and has the potential to persist throughout one’s life resulting in a loss of health and productivity as an adult,” Dr Onywera said at the launch of the report at Kenyatta University on Thursday.
Titled Kenya’s 2011 Report Card on the Physical Activity and Body Weight of Children and Youth, the report discusses childhood obesity and physical activity using data compiled from 1985.